It was in June 2017, AB De Villiers, one of 21st century’s greatest batsman decided to go off on a break that was potentially linked to the swansong of a glorious international. Having endured a torrid time as South Africa’s limited-overs skipper in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy and the T20I series against England, De Villiers decided to put his career on recess in order to reduce his workload and spend a bit of time off at home with his family.
And when he decided to return against Bangladesh in the limited overs format, there was no doubt whatsoever over the impact his return to the country’s limited-overs side would be as Mr.360 was unleashed from the first game against the Bangladeshis to all the way against their neighbouring minnows Zimbabwe. But questions loomed over whether De Villiers could actually revive his Test career when his nation was scheduled for the toughest summer with consecutive series against the top Test side in the form of India and followed by the mighty Australians, who were oozing with confidence coming back of a remarkable Ashes triumph.
At 34 years of age, it could prove to be a nightmare for any world-class cricketer making a comeback against two top-quality visitors, but AB is no average world-class batsman. Had you thought it was a foolish and complicated task in the twilight of his career, you are bound to be disappointed as South Africa’s Man of Steel arrived and arrived in a way only he can do.
With being the ultimate difference maker with the bat in the first two Tests against India, De Villiers secured the series for South Africa, which won the series 2-1 and he wasn’t done with that. Following an embarrassing loss against Australia in the first Test in Durban, South Africa needed their best player to shine and shine he did. De Villiers returned to the AB of old with an unbeaten 126 in the second Test on Sunday – a hundred that was out of sheer brilliance from the blade of cricket’s most gifted stroke-maker on an onerous turf that left even the Australians with awe and applause. It is said that the price of Greatness is responsibility and AB demonstrated exactly what greatness.
On a wicket where even the technically sound and gifted batsmen on both sides struggled to put their head down and battle for runs, De Villiers came out and played an innings that was completely on a different level that was beyond the reach of 21 others in the same game and that proved to be the difference as South Africa would go on to level the series 1-1.
Speaking to the press, he said, “You’re always just a couple of innings away from people saying, ‘Hold on, is he still good enough? Those kinds of things were in my mind. I was very motivated to prove to everyone that I can still play the game.”
Further, he added, “I was just tired of playing. I was just flat, physically and mentally. There were other factors, I had become a dad, there were a lot of things happening in my life. I felt I needed to breathe a bit.”
De Villiers might have moved on from the Kookaburra Kahuna to the MRF with a very solid low-middle, but 146- ball crème de la crème innings which featured 20 fours and a six of his willow was ever the mastery of AB’s stroke-making that defined by class and elegance – a knock which his former skipper Graeme Smith termed as De Villiers’s ‘greatest innings’. The innings also brought out praise from Australian skipper Steve Smith who himself is on the road to becoming a modern day great. At the post-match presentation, Smith pointed out the fact that AB was the big difference between both sides with his brilliant knock.
However, AB being the level-headed gentleman he is, had a different take to it. “I was so relieved, I was very nervous in the 90s – I don’t think it showed but I was telling Vern (batting partner Philander) out there that I was struggling to breathe and my legs literally went numb. It’s funny when a guy who has played for 13 or 14 years says that, but it’s true. It really meant a lot to me to get that 100,“ he said.
A lot might have changed in De Villiers in the last 14 years, but his appetite to be the best player has remained a constant. The short break from cricket was all he needed to bounce back as the great ones always find a way to be the best and make it look easy. For now, the Proteas and its fans can hold their head high as cricket’s Superman is back and is here to re-define greatness, something that has been synonymous with De Villiers. As a fan, one can only hope that retirement isn’t anywhere near his mind as the world still craves for this craftsman to belt the ball all around the place like only he can.